It wasn’t bad news; it was terrible news. Morris* knew it would disrupt his whole life. “It’s something that you never expect to happen to you,” he says, “and it opens up the question of the unknown: what is going to happen next?”
Morris had just been diagnosed with a most dreaded disease: cancer. Multiple myeloma to be exact, a cancer of the bone marrow. A large tumour was found in his femur that could have broken his leg at any moment. “It was a very bad surprise,” he says, “I had no idea. I didn’t suspect any serious issue with my leg.” He did, however, have excruciating back pain. When an ambulance took him to the hospital’s emergency department he had to crawl across the floor to reach the stretcher.
Morris believed in God and attended church before his diagnosis, and he says this is what got him through each moment. “When your faith is tested, you decide what path you will follow—will I be angry, or will I be faithful and keep believing? And, of course, to believe in a wonderful, loving, merciful God is what makes the world of difference.”
The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines religion as “a set of beliefs and practices, usually involving acknowledgment of a divine or higher being or power, by which people order the conduct of their lives both practically and in a moral sense.” Spirituality is about the search for meaning in life. Human happiness relies on purpose and meaning, and the strength of an individual’s beliefs is strongly linked to their health.
Thousands of studies have underscored how the spiritual lifts one’s mood and general wellbeing. Most of these studies focus on religious practice. It’s fair to say that in a minority of cases certain religious practices cause harm, but the vast majority of studies show positive benefits to societal and individual wellbeing.
Chronic health conditions, such as cancer, increase the risk of depression. However, spirituality can uplift and increase healing in patients with chronic conditions. In cancer patients, spirituality reduces their risk of suffering from depression. One reason for this is that faith encourages a positive worldview. Morris says, “I believe that you need to have faith to have hope. It gives you a positive view of the future, which increases your happiness.” Positive thinking includes gratitude—counting one’s blessings. Faith also encourages an altruistic or “other-focused” approach, which also increases happiness.
Morris found this principle of altruism in the Bible. He says, “When you read the Word, it teaches you many things—one of them is to support and help your neighbour; the person next to you. What better person to reach out to another patient than someone who has the same problem? My cancer is different to theirs, but it’s cancer nevertheless. That somebody else will listen to me because we are going through the same thing.”
He’s also seen that the Bible teaches joy; as it says in Proverbs 17:22, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.”
“Overall you have to show what you have inside,” says Morris. “Be funny; be naturally who you are; express your happiness. Play with your children when you can and behave as if there is not a worry in the world—that has been my motto.” Studies have shown that laughter can indeed be a powerful medicine that increases feelings of happiness and wellbeing.
One benefit of religious attendance is that it encourages social connection. Religious community provides a support network and has been shown to decrease the risk of depression and psychological distress. Even those who don’t directly participate in religious community reap the benefits. One German study found that even atheists who live in highly religious areas have more life-satisfaction!
Morris felt the encouragement of his church community even when he was too ill to attend. Many church members prayed for him, sent messages, visited and asked about his needs.
The “Blue Zones” of the world are places where people live the longest. One of these zones is Loma Linda, California, where about a third of residents are Seventh-day Adventists. Their commitment to faith-based community, along with their non-smoking, non-drinking, plant-based health practices, has added quality of life as well as quantity of life in years. Similarly, a Canadian study showed that those with higher levels of religious attendance were at lower risk of suicide. This is relevant to Australia and New Zealand, where suicide is still one of the leading killers of young people.
Based on the information gathered from objective and subjective sources—one patient’s story and a wealth of studies—faith and spirituality combined with religious practice and community have been linked with increased wellbeing, physical health, life-satisfaction and happiness, while decreasing the risk of depression and suicide.
Morris says that without His belief in God and the spiritual support of loved ones and his church community, he would not be able to go through the tough times. “Believing in a God, in the Creator, made an unimaginable difference. First, you develop trust that the Lord will look after you; that He is a powerful God. Then you learn to rely on Him and not to be full of anxiety and fear. Believing in God’s promises by faith, and all the things promised in the Bible, is what gives me peace. And through the promises you see this disease with hope. The moments that you live are filled with hope, and that gives you happiness.”
Leesa Briones is a lifestyle medicine student with a background in education. She lives with her family in Melbourne.
* For privacy reasons, only Morris’s first name is used.
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